Tigers: Hunting The Traffickers

Date: 19.02.2020     Last updated: 25.02.2020 at 09.44
Category: BBC Two; Factual

Can you tell us what this film is about? 

The growth in illegal tiger farms throughout South East Asia and China is stimulating a demand for tiger products like tiger bone wine and glue. Tiger trafficking is now big business and this rise in demand is having a devastating effect on the world’s wild tiger population as a premium is now paid for its wild provenance. This film investigates the murky underworld of the illegal tiger farms feeding this demand.

This film is about the complex issues that surround the trade and tries to raise awareness of the immediate threat to these endangered animals. I, alongside a team of investigators, try to expose and piece together the shocking secrets of the illegal tiger farms and those who profit. Numbers of wild tigers in much of South East Asia are declining and wild tigers risk becoming extinct if this illegal trade is left unchecked.

What attracted you to this project?

Since I first joined the Royal Marines at the age of 16 I have spent many years travelling the globe and I have also spent a huge amount of time in the jungles of South East Asia. I still remember the exhilarating feeling of sharing the dense forest with the wild tiger, for me the most majestic Apex predator. Since then, I have been fascinated by these beautiful creatures and acutely aware of their plight as an endangered species.

A few years ago I was talking with director Orlando Von Einsiedel from Grain Media about risky stories that needed to be told. This came top of the list. Telling a story of a species closer to extinction partly due to man’s desire to turn it into “luxury” products would require intricate storytelling, investigative journalism and a healthy dose of risk taking. It felt the perfect project to me and Grain Media who also have a strong interest in conservation filmmaking.

You have spent the last few years working with anti-poaching patrols. What motivated you to exposing tiger trafficking?

I have been working over the years with a charity that offers former service personnel the opportunity to play a critical role in conservation and the prevention of wildlife crime around the world. As highly military trained individuals, our work on the ground is very much focused on training and mentoring anti-poaching units to deal with illegal poaching.

The poachers, who are risking their lives for very little in return, are very often the ones with the least options. The real issue is the organised trafficking networks across South East Asia and the increasing demand for illegal products. Poaching happens because there is a demand for an illegal animal product. 

It soon became very clear to me that all anti-poaching operations were being continually undermined by this growing demand, high tech trafficking syndicates and endemic governmental corruption. Where there is a demand, there will always be someone willing to risk their life to supply.

That is why I wanted to try and find out more about the networks, the organised crime and the government complicity in this illegal and lucrative trade. The tiger is an apex predator and without it the world would be a very different place. Countries like China and Vietnam have the power to save wild tigers and I believe they should do more to prevent its eradication.

What challenges did you encounter while filming?

Carrying out this investigation was fraught with challenges. The trade spans nearly all across South East Asia, from Malaysia right up through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and further into China. Due to the nature of the trade in these countries, trafficking can also be linked to other illegal activities such as drugs smuggling, illegal logging and people trafficking, so the level of risk and danger is quite high. But the biggest challenge and risk was to the investigators we worked alongside because in some of these countries they could risk their lives for exposing the trade.  For me the biggest challenge was feeling quite helpless at the industrial scale of the trade.

You put yourself in some extreme and risky situations to make this film. How has your former life as a Royal Marines Commando Sniper equipped you to deal with them?

My background helped me invaluably throughout the filming. I was able to use many of the skills I was taught in the Marines like collecting useful information for the investigation. Often it was just myself and my director Laura out on the ground gathering information. We had to plan operations as if they were a military tasking, taking into account vehicle moves, communications, actions and worst case scenario planning. Flexibility is the biggest asset to any live investigation. Sometimes we would be out on the ground for 18 hours and then all of a sudden we had to follow a different lead into a different country, the whole time being aware that what we were doing was incredibly risky and dangerous.

What were the most memorable and shocking moments from filming?

One of the most memorable parts of the film was spending time with the Counter Tiger Poaching units in the Taman Negara National Park in Malaysia. They spend weeks on end out in the jungle tracking down tiger poachers. They have dedicated their lives to the protection of the few wild tigers left in Malaysia. It’s frustrating that their efforts are being completely undermined by the industrial scale poaching taking place in their own back yard. The wild tigers are being trafficked North into Vietnam and China where a premium is fetched, as they are worth more dead and butchered than alive and wild. It was truly great to spend time with these dedicated and loyal teams, learning how they operate and what their biggest challenges were. This gave me the background knowledge and drive to find out more about the illegal trade.

For me the most shocking scenes revealed how large some tiger facilities were. Some places I visited had hundreds of tigers locked up in cages.

The tiger trade is hidden from sight, unlike the ivory or rhino trade where the brutality is on show for the world to see. Trafficked tigers are locked behind closed doors, many hidden from public view. The world is largely unaware of the brutal way in which they are farmed and ultimately slaughtered for their bones. Breaking into these facilities to expose the cruelty these tigers are exposed to is a vital part of bringing the truth to the wider world. But it was incredibly difficult to witness these majestic creatures being kept behind bars when they should be in the jungle.

Why should people watch the film and what do you hope they’ll take away from it?

Anyone with an interest in conservation should watch this film. It is an investigation into the destruction and extinction of an apex predator, an insight into how the commodification of a farmed product can affect an entire wild species. It is an action packed, thrilling shocker of an investigation that will take the viewer to some unexpected places. I hope that this film will make a small difference and add to the weight of work that international and local NGOs are doing in the field of tiger protection and conservation.